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Newspaper struggles with covering immigration aspect of an otherwise routine, feel-good story

By Tim Wiseman
Institute for Rural Journalism
and Community Issues

On the Web site of The Sentinel-News in Shelbyville, Ky., one story remained a lightning rod for comments for more than a month after its publication – a short article about a family moving into a Habitat for Humanity home, at left.

That is usually an innocuous, feel-good event, but the story and its subject remained controversial because of one short sentence that raised the issue of illegal immigration in America, and especially in Shelby County.

That made it more than a standard story about a Habitat move-in, and how the twice-a-week, 9,000-circulation paper handled it provides an interesting case study of the coverage of immigration and a popular charity.

Reporter Nathan McBroom wrote about the Villa family, which had just purchased its first home through Habitat. McBroom explained that Pedro Villa and his wife, Magdalena Vieyra, who came from the Mexican state of Michoacan, would be sharing the home with their four grown children. McBroom described the application process for a Habitat home, as well as the group’s Christian philosophy, as outlined by local affiliate Secretary Travis Davis.

McBroom made an oblique reference to the family’s residency status, writing, “ Davis said that Habitat International does not allow local branches to require U.S. citizenship as a requirement for application.”

Nothing else was said about the Villa family in particular, but the likely question for many readers was, “So, is the Villa family legal?” In Shelby County, that question is being asked more often.

In the last two decades, the Latino population has grown rapidly in the largely rural but fast-suburbanizing county, which is in the Louisville metropolitan area. The Census Bureau estimated in 2005 that 8 percent of the population had Hispanic or Latino origin, compared to 2 percent in Kentucky as a whole.

With that background, once the story was going to press, “We knew there would be a response,” McBroom told the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

McBroom said he spoke to the Villa family through an interpreter and didn’t ask Davis or the family if its members were citizens. McBroom said the question seemed irrelevant, because it was not a criterion in the Habitat process.

“I didn't know, but I thought that it had no bearing on the story," he said. "If it doesn't matter to (Habitat), for us to print that he might be illegal would be sensational. The point of this article was that this man and his family got a house."

But in the hands of readers, the story became something else.

On the message boards of the newspaper's Web site, readers posted lengthy rants about the broader issue of immigration, especially in light of reform legislation being debated in Congress at the time. In most posts, the question of the Villa family’s citizenship was asked directly.

A few months before McBroom did the story, his editor, Walt Reichert, had followed a similar tale. The scenario was much the same: a Habitat home was ready for its new occupants, and the local paper felt obliged to take some pictures and publish a short article. The family was Hispanic, but the question of residency status never arose, Reichert said. “Not a word” was said about it, he recalled, adding that he “never thought about it.” In that instance, the story ran without incident or uproar.

McBroom raised the issue in reporting the latest story, Reichert said. The answer Habitat gave the enterprising reporter could have led to follow-up questions or stories, but the paper chose to keep its usual focus, on the move-in.

“The Habitat official did not even know if they were legit, because he was not allowed to ask,” McBroom said. “I didn't know, but I thought that it had no bearing on the story.”

For McBroom, asking about the citizenship of the Villa family would lead nowhere, even if it were a question readers would have posed themselves. “Whether I should have asked, well, that's debatable,” he said.

Many online commenters, and likely many readers, wanted an explanation from Habitat for Humanity. Since many in the community had donated to the charity, they wanted some answers about where and to whom their money was going.

The newspaper did not see Habitat as a local institution to be held accountable. “The way I look at it, Habitat for Humanity is a charity that can do as they please with their money and work,” Reichert said.

Shelbyville is the headquarters town of Landmark Community Newspapers Inc., which owns The Sentinel-News. Landmark Executive Editor Benjy Hamm said he was aware of the controversy but the company followed its standard policy of local editorial autonomy. The paper recently did a series of stories on local immigrants.

The evolution of a usually routine story highlighted the intensity of the immigration debate. It could be argued that the paper should have represented readers by directly asking about the family’s status. If Habitat had not answered that question, at least the story would have acknowledged the effort. But that would have given the question a higher profile, which the paper wanted to avoid in the story.

“It's difficult to write in such a way as to seem unbiased, because people are so passionate about it,” McBroom said. “I go over every word because I know every word will be scrutinized.”

Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu

Last Updated: 11/17/2007